HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 25, 2008
From Liberty Street

A Mind of Sorts

John Turner


For the past several days I've been asking myself whether there is anything that can reasonably be called the mind of America, and if there is, what it might be.

My motivation has been, in part, Barack Obama's messages of "Change we can believe in," and "Change begins with you." There was a flyer in my mailbox when I got home from a recent trip urging me to vote for Obama in the upcoming Vermont primary of March 4th. Among other things, it tells me that Obama can "change politics as usual" and that he has been "a model of unity in the U.S. Senate."

My trouble, of course, is that I don't know what he means by either politics as usual or unity. Presumably they are related to the way "we" have been in the habit of thinking, or to our mind. But what is this thing we call "our mind?"

When Obama says he's going to bring change does he mean simply that he believes he can alter the percentage of Americans who will vote in a certain way, so that a former minority can become a majority? Or does he mean he's going to change the way almost all of us think and, therefore, deliver a different mind to the country? And if he means the latter, which he seems to imply, what are these new thoughts that are going to enter the minds of the people, these thoughts that the people have not had in mind before?

I don't think he's going to put any new thoughts in my mind, and I have a difficult time conceiving of anyone I know who would actually acquire new thoughts as the result of listening to campaign rhetoric.

Are people who until now have read no serious books going to start reading them?

Are those who have felt no sympathy for certain categories of people going to start feeling sympathy?

Are those who have been devoted to the notion of killing "our" enemies going to give up their belief in killing?

Are those whose emotions have been activated by scare words like "socialism" or "terrorism" going to start looking at social conditions dispassionately?

Maybe what Obama has in mind is that he's going to begin modeling thinking for the people, and that when they see him thinking in a certain way they will be disposed to follow and to welcome thoughts into their minds that never found hospitality there before. It's a grandiose notion but if he would do it -- if he can do it -- it might be a good thing. And, if it happened perhaps the mind of the nation actually would be modified.

Another item I found when I got home was an article in my local paper, by a local writer, titled "Notes on Our Collective Iraq War Delusion." In it, the author, Wallace Roberts points out that major media in America have given very little attention to the number of people in Iraq who have been killed as a result of our military invasion of that country. When an estimate is mentioned, it almost always comes from Pentagon officials, who will not even divulge their method of compiling their figure, and not from respected scholarly groups who supply full information about how their numbers were calculated. As you might imagine, the numbers from the scholarly groups are much larger than the Pentagon's figures. From a competent intellectual point of view, these journalistic practices are both shocking and disgusting. Yet very little disgust is expressed among the people, the politicians, or the journalists. Why not? Is it because they have minds that work in a certain way, minds that together make up the mind of America? And could it be this mind that Obama intends to change?

Let's assume it is? How is he going to do it? Will he stand before the American people and say it is shameful that we, collectively -- people, politicians, media-figures -- have not been more concerned about the slaughter in Iraq that we set in motion? Will he say we have disgraced ourselves by not caring more than we do? Will he say that deep repentance is required of us?

He probably won't. But, supposing he did, would the mind of America change? Is that the kind of change he is thinking about when he promotes mostly unidentified change on his campaign flyers?

I shouldn't make this a criticism of Obama. He is no less specific about the change he intends to bring than either John McCain or Hillary Clinton has been. There is a lot of talk about change but so far none of it involves a fundamental change of heart about who we, the people of the United States, ought to be. And without a genuine change of heart there can be no change of mind.

As I implied, I'm not completely sure there is any mind of America to be changed. There may be in this nation nothing but chaos so far as mind is concerned. But if there is mind, I would welcome a politician who would speak forcefully about how it might be changed, because, right now, I don't think it's in a good condition.

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